Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

A distant relationship

The Times  February 5, 2003



LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I occasionally fight with my girlfriend. OK, more than occasionally. I am American and have just moved to Madrid, she is British and has just settled in Frankfurt. I am 32, and her third decade is in sight.

In short, neither of us has a particularly strong grip on much of anything, least of all each other. Which is, of course, what we fight about.

This is not an article about fighting, though. It is about the hidden complications and costs of fighting in different countries.

There were not, of course, supposed to be any difficulties when we started. We met in London and were off to live in different cities for a few months, confident that 21st-century technology would keep us together. We did not have much money, good jobs or homes in our new countries, but none of this would be a problem. We were, after all, modern, up-to-date, instant, armed with laptops, mobile phones and the quickwittedness of a generation raised on Nintendo and MTV.

Hubris, I found out, can be expensive. Not that she is not worth it, of course. My girlfriend is vivacious, bright, beautiful, sensitive, sweet and passionate.

Especially passionate. We had been together for just over three months, which is when a relationship begins to get "serious".

What this means in practice is that through some mutual, unspoken agreement, we had entered into a contest over who would be the dominant force in the relationship from here on. If you show weakness in the beginning, my friends had always warned me (especially my friends who are women), you might as well buy yourself a pair of kneepads. The rules of engagement that were set down now would govern the rest of our time together.

But we were sure we had an uncommon bond, and that being in different cities would only strengthen it. She left for Frankfurt while I was still staying at a friend's flat in London. The heartfelt messages started immediately. I was pottering around the kitchen when my phone announced the arrival of a text message. "We landed. I am getting off the plane. I miss you. L."

Texting is not common in America, but I am savvy enough to figure that "L" meant love. I tried to call her on my mobile but the signal would not go through.

I tried a text: "Miss you too. Call me when you can. Yrs." Did it work? I had no idea. This was only the third time that I had sent a text message, and the first time I had sent one internationally. But then came the beep beep of her reply. "I miss you too. Will call when I get a phone, L." Ahh.

She got settled soon enough, and we moved up to e-mail. Messages back and forth, ten times a day minimum. I would send notes like: "A bird flew by my window. I think it was a sparrow. Miss you." Off it would go into the internet world and I would wait, holding my breath.

Why wasn't she answering? Maybe it was too obviously tender, or too opaque? But then the little envelope would blink in the corner of my screen, and the response would come: "You are mean and horrid for not being here."

I smiled, recognising this as a Britishism for missing me. I was back in geometry class again, passing notes on a piece of paper torn from my notebook to the girl sitting next to me, except now she was hundreds of miles away. Thank you, Bill Gates.

Then the first bill arrived from my American internet provider: $ 269 (Pounds 164) for one month's service. Savvy young man that I am, I had figured out how to connect to my internet service by dialling a local number in Europe. It was only a 15 cent-a-minute surcharge. Somehow, a dozen short flirtatious messages a day, as well as a few longer ones, plus assorted piddling around on the internet, had morphed into $ 269, which my internet provider had obligingly charged to my credit card without asking first. The true costs of a long-distance affair became clear when I moved to Madrid a week later. I had a temporary apartment and was not allowed to use the phone.

I still had my mobile and had switched it to Vodafone in Spain, so I immediately charged it up with Euro 45 (Pounds 30) worth of credit from a scratchcard. I was ecstatic when I first arrived, sitting in a plaza filled with cheerful drinkers at 1am, and I gave my darling a call.

We talked. Me in warm Spain, her in cold Frankfurt. It was lovely here, it was horrid there. When would she visit? When would I go there? On and on. I hung up the phone with a smile on my face, only vaguely registering that my lovely little chat had worn through Euro 45.

I don't know when the fight started, and I would rather discuss Arab-Israeli relations than go into why. It was, needless to say, my fault. My failure to recognise this meant that we quickly moved to crisis level. The initial discussions took place by telephone, heated and intense.

Still, as I sat on the steps of a church watching the Madrid nightlife stroll by while my darling castigated me in tones that sounded as if she had picked up a German influence, I figured that there were worse ways to be yelled at than this.

Then the phone clicked off. My credit had expired. I was in trouble - she must have thought I had hung up on her. I ran three blocks to where I had last seen one of those shops that sells toilet brushes, phonecards and pasta 24 hours a day. I bought another Euro 30 card.

Five minutes to repair the damage from the disconnect and then, just as we were into the part about my mistakes, which I was now admitting but trying to move the conversation to her mistakes, the phone cut again. So I found a cash machine, ran back to the shop to buy a pay phonecard and looked for a public phone that worked and was not covered in vomit.

By now I had had time to think and was trying to be as conciliatory as possible, especially as I knew I had only 19 minutes on the card. She was going to come to Madrid, but now she wanted me to come to Frankfurt. I said that I would. The phone cut out.

I found an internet cafe, got online and found a Virgin Express flight leaving that night. I was sitting on hold with the airline when my "call-waiting" beeped.

It was a text from her. "You are quite mad. If you don't come, I shall be there Friday. L." "L" means love, right? It turns out that was the only thing I understood about the message. At the time, though, I was thrilled that I didn't have to go to Germany in the middle of winter. I sent her a note back. "What should I do? I can come there, but it is sunny and nice here."

Needless to say, I flew to Frankfurt. Everything was sorted within the first hour and we were back on track, joking and smiling and hugging. The solution, face-to-face contact, turned out be easy and, in the end, a mere Euro 49 round trip. Roughly the price of a 15-minute mobile phone conversation. Anyway, it has all been patched up now, and I have just written her an e-mail in the voice of Gollum, subject heading: My precious.

Pretty funny, huh? Yeah, she is supposed to be on a Euro 49 flight tonight, arriving at 10pm.Which means she should be on the plane by now. Wait, my cellphone is beeping... .

Copyright by Samuel Loewenberg and/or the publication in which it first appeared
Do not reprint without permission